Thursday, February 07, 2008

Little Children

I'd so have liked, today, to talk of the results from Supersaturated Tuesday, and what they mean for America and the world. But since everyone is analyzing Supersaturated Tuesday to death, and no-one is sparing a thought for the film, "Little Children", which I've just seen for the first time, and which I think superb, it seems logical for me to talk today of "Little Children", rather than of Hillary, Barack, John, Mitt, or Mike.

"Little Children's" principal character, Sarah (Kate Winslet), is a thirtyish woman, with a three-year old girl, and married to Richard, a corporate marketing man. They live comfortably in a nice big suburban house. You'd think Sarah would be happy, but she isn't, because she's bored staying home playing mother to her daughter, when she'd rather be out in the working world, utilizing her degree in literature. Sarah spends part of each day in a park watching her daughter play there in the company of other children, whose mothers - soccer-moms all - also hang around the park supervising their children, and exchanging local gossip with Sarah.

The interest of Sarah and her fellow soccer-moms is piqued by a handsome athletic-looking man (Patrick Wilson) who each day brings his infant son to play in the park. He would appear to be a stay-at-home dad, because he always comes alone with his son. Sarah one day, under the gaze of the soccer-moms, summons the courage to strike up an acquaintanceship with him. She learns his name is Brad, and that he stays home while his wife, Kathy, works as a documentary film-maker. Brad has been trying for some time to pass his bar exams to practice law, but he keeps failing. As long as this situation lasts, Kathy will be the bread-winner and Brad will look after their child.

Sarah also learns that Brad often takes his son to the community swimming-pool, so she begins taking her little daughter there too, where, away from the gazes of the soccer moms, she hopes she'll encounter Brad accidentally on purpose - and eventually she does. After meeting up this way a few times, Sarah and Brad embark upon a passionate affair.

You may at this point, dear reader, be regarding Sarah and Brad less than charitably, thinking they're not being fair to their respective spouses. However, Sarah has discovered that her husband, Richard, spends his evenings at home looking at internet porn hour after hour, something which for Sarah, is a veritable turn-off. Brad's wife, Kathy, for her part, is becoming cold and distant with Brad, denying him the marital fleshly pleasures. So we shouldn't be surprised that Sarah and Brad enjoy with each other, what they're missing in their marriages.

Brad also regularly spends long periods of time watching a bunch of teenaged skateboarders do their stuff. It seems that Brad's father had suddenly died when Brad was at the age of the skateboarders, and when he himself had skateboarded. So Brad is stuck in his teenaged years - hence his compulsion to watch teenaged skateboarders.

Brad also has a friend, Larry (Noah Emmerich) an ex-policeman, who has talked Brad into playing touch-football a couple of nights a week with a team of Larry's cronies. After these games they all go to a bar to drink and party, and to talk about what to do about a convicted paedophile, Ronnie, who, after being released from a two-year stint in jail, is now living in the community, in the house of his mother. Larry is especially obsessed by Ronnie, and arranges to have Ronnie's picture displayed everywhere, so everyone will know who he is.

And, as you watch Larry, you feel his mind contains secrets which no-one else knows. It turns out that, some years previously, he'd accidentally shot dead a child in the course of his official duties as a policeman. But what about other stuff?

As for Ronnie the paedophile, his reputation is such that on the one occasion when he visits the community swimming-pool and takes an underwater swim while wearing goggles and a snorkel, he causes such panic that everyone abandons the pool, leaving Ronnie to be escorted out by two policemen who'd been summoned. But it later turns out that Ronnie, although an adult, is psychologically a young and pathetic child, who had never done more than reveal his frontal nether regions to unsuspecting children.

"Little Children" has the feel of other films about American suburbia, like "American Beauty" and "Blue Velvet", which try to show that, under under suburbia's tranquil exterior of manicured green lawns, quiet streets, and spacious houses, turbulence bubbles. What's really going on behind the closed doors of the capacious homes you walk by on the street? What's really going on in the minds of the soccer mom's and dads? the ones who, talking out of mouths with perfect fine white teeth, say "hi" to you in the park or in the mall.

As I watched "Little Children", I wondered why it had been titled "Little Children", for although it has some little children in it, it isn't about them. Then inside my head a lightbulb switched on. Of course! It's the adults in the film, particularly the male ones, who are the little children, or at least not quite grown-up. Brad, in his financial dependence on his wife, and his fascination with skateboarding, is a perpetual adolescent. So too is Sarah's husband, Richard, in his obsession with internet porn. And Ronnie, the paedophile, has never psychologically gone beyond the child stage. And Larry and his buddies on the touch-football team, are like small boys who have been given permission by their mommies (wives) to play outside with their little friends on a couple of evenings a week.


That so many of "Little Children's" dramatis personae are little children at heart, perhaps reflects that we, most of us, go through our entire lives as little children, or as adolescents? Consider that when in high school we felt compelled to act and dress as our little friends did, lest they ostracize or bully us; and we lived in fear of the punishments which our teachers, or our mothers and fathers would inflict on us if we failed our exams, or were late for school in the mornings, or talked out of turn in class, or were rude to the teacher. We couldn't wait to escape home and school, in which we were confined as fearful children and rebellious adolescents. We thought that when we got a job, and paid our own way, things would be different.

Having finally escaped school, and the tentacles of our mothers and fathers, for whom we were little more than animated possessions to do their bidding, we found that the organizations which employ us, treat us little differently than did our schoolmasters or mothers and fathers. Instead of a school uniform we have a business suit; and if we don't arrive at work on time, we'll be chastised or fired; and we begin and end our coffee-breaks and lunches, not at the sound of a school bell, but of a buzzer; and if we take a day off sick, we must get a note from the doctor; and if we don't do our work exactly as the boss wants, we'll be fired.

So our workplaces are as riddled with fear and loathing, and with boredom, as were our schools. Our bosses infantilize us into behaving as fearful little children, just as our teachers, and mothers and fathers once did.


Sarah (Kate Winslet) belongs to a book-club which is discussing Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary". The other members of the book-club are, with one exception, women older than Sarah, who are split in their judgements of Emma Bovary, who, being stuck in a stultifying and oppressive marriage to a bourgeois doctor, chose to break free, and have passionate affairs with many men. Sarah sees in Emma's predicament, her own predicament. So Sarah takes Emma's side, saying, in so many words, that Emma was presented with a simple choice: either conform to society's mores, and be unhappy, but secure and respected; or try for happiness, but at the price of disgrace and ultimate disaster.

Is Emma's predicament that much different for so many of today's women, and also men? This question hovers over the book-club's dissection of "Madame Bovary".

One of the book club's participants is one of Sarah's soccer-mom friends from the playground She condemns Emma vehemently, calling her a disgraceful irresponsible slut. Why would this model of a suburban soccer-mom, take so personally what the fictional Emma Bovary did? one wonders.


And Now For Something Completely Different:

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Meaning of Ron Paul (2)

My last posting, about Ron Paul, led to a reader, Bobby, posting a comment saying that should Ron Paul be the Republican candidate in this year's US general election, he, Bobby, will vote for him, since he finds intrinsically appealing, Ron's down-to-earth economic message.

Since whatever Ron Paul says, and what people say about what he says, is usually provocative, Bobby's comment provoked me into writing a reponse longer than is normal in such responses.

Having written it, I considered it suitable for a separate posting, so here it is:

Hi Bobby - You've obviously been taken in by Ron Paul's economic bromides, which sound so simple - too good to be true, you might say, and they certainly are!!!

You should know that Ron is a disciple of the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics, whose high-priests include(d) Friederich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian school; and Milton Friedman of the Chicago school. The philosophies of the Austrian and Chicago schools are, by the way, for all intents and purposes the same, saying, in so many words, that taxes and the size of goverment must be kept to the bare minimum, so that the businessman can throw off his shackles, and unrestrainedly do his stuff in the glorious world of the free marketplace. Thus the economy will grow by leaps and bounds, and we'll all have good jobs, and be prosperous and happy.

If you believe all this, then I'm not surprised you'd vote for Ron. You'd be foolish not to.

Ron would take us all back to the time of the Great Crash of 1929 and before, when public sector spending in most of today's industrialized countries was a mere 10% of GDP, instead of the on-average 35% it now is. If you belonged to the rich elite, you were fine. But if you belonged to the majority who were poor, you weren't so fine. Admittedly you didn't have to pay much in taxes, but you were likely to be poor, and very possibly unemployed because joblessness was at 25% instead of the 7% or 8% it is today.

This state of affairs continued up to World War Two, when unemployment suddenly dropped to almost zero, because there was an immediate huge demand for people to make guns, tanks, and aeroplanes, and to wield them as soldiers, sailors, and airmen. So there was work for everyone, despite the work not being for the most part particularly pleasant, and often downright dangerous. But it was still work, so you never had to worry where your next crust was coming from.

Amazingly, things went on humming after the war's end, when returning soldiers demanded changes from how things were. They wanted the good life as reward for their wartime sacrifices. Goverments could only ensure this by continuing to spend at much higher rates than before the war, so to keep money flowing through the economic system. This created a continuous demand for goods and services, which in turn created a continuous need for workers and consumers.

This is called Keynesian economics - after the economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that in order to ameliorate the sharp fluctuations of business cycles, governments must pump large amounts of money into the public sector to keep up a steady demand for goods and services and maintain full employment.

So to apply Keynesian economics became the accepted practice, and, as a result, the societies of today's "developed world" transformed from being blue-collar working-class societies into white-collar middle-class ones, and brought about the greatest economic expansion in history. This is how things still are. But because people always take things for granted, many took for granted the post-war prosperity, and complained about the taxes to maintain the Keynesian economic order. So they demanded that their taxes be reduced, and governments be shrunk, so the businessman could do his thing.

But most of those who led the demands to go back to the old ways, were academics and business professionals, who were only able to become academics and business professionals because of the huge expansion of public education in the post-war Keynesian world. It's a poor reflection on post-war education, that so many emerged not knowing much of history and economics.Thus they learned no lessons from the Great Depression, among them that Capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its destruction - one of the great observations of Karl Marx. So these glib children of the Baby Boom generation didn't understand that, but for the Second World War and the huge public-sector spending it entailed, the capitalist economic system would likely not have survived, for it just wasn't working. Capitalism had to be saved from itself through goverment intervention.

But fortunately, the likes of Ron Paul and his acolytes - the ones who complain the loudest about Keynesianism - are in the minority, for most of those in charge of governments today are Keynesians. Even that arch Republican, Richard Nixon, once famously said, "We're all Keynesians now". And George Bush is also unwittingly a "Keynesian", although he would probably never admit this, assuming he knows of the word, "Keynesian", which he may not.

But if, Bobby, you've read this far, and you still aren't convinced of the merits of Keynesianism, ask yourself why, after the huge stock market crash of 1987 - a crash proportionately as large as that of 1929 - there wasn't another Great Depression? Well, it was because, thanks to the Keynesian monetary institutions and systems set up after World War Two to prevent another world-wide depression, goverments were able immediately to pump many billions of dollars into the system, to maintain an uninterrupted demand for goods and services. So, after a hiccup, the system went right on ticking, and the stock market soon recovered. Other large stock-market fluctuations have since occurred. But, again, there was no world-wide depression. So the Keynesian system must be doing something right.

So, Bobby, I feel sure you now see that Ron Paul, who rejects Keynesianism, and wants the world to return to what it was before 1929, doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to economics. This isn't to say he isn't a clever man, for he is, since he's a physician, and you must be clever to become a physician. So Ron would know much more about medicine than he would about economics. Well, yes, he's read some books about economics, the ones by Friederich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian school. But Ron's economic utterances are simply another example of a little learning being a dangerous thing.

If Ron would widen his reading to include books by the likes of John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith, he might learn how Keynesianism has saved us from economic disaster. And he might come to understand that the societies of the US and the other industrialized countries would, if they rejected Keynesianism, become as unequal as those of Indonesia, the Phillippines, Brazil, and South Africa, with their 30% unemployment rates. And he might become aware that whenever economic disparities within the industrialized countries have widened, their rate of economic growth has stagnated.

Lest you think I traduce Ron Paul unduly, I recognize that he's a good and public-spirited man who has contributed greatly to humanity by delivering many thousands of babies as an obstetrician, and performing free medical services to the poor. And his demand that the US dismantle its world-wide empire, bring all its soldiers home, and return to being the republic it once was, is wholly admirable. It is his stance on Iraq, and on US foreign entanglements, which has given him a somewhat high profile in the current presidential race. It's not his economics. And he has been a veritable breath of fresh air in the Republican debates, saying things that at least cause people to think.

You shouldn't, Bobby, take Ron Paul seriously when he says that the Department of Education, and the Federal Reserve, and the Income Tax, should be abolished. Ron can say these things, knowing he won't be elected president. If he were, perchance, the Republican front-runner, he'd be talking very differently. You can count on it.


And Now For Something Completely Different